Homeowners should look out for ‘helpful’ scammers

Published 11:04 pm Thursday, April 7, 2011

Out-of-state companies are luring Virginia homeowners into trusting them with their mortgage troubles with false promises and too-good-to-be-true scenarios, according to a National Fair Housing Alliance report.

The report, which was released Wednesday, details the methods in which 84 companies across the nation take advantage of struggling homeowners.

The report says these scams are taking advantage of the one in nine homeowners in America who is more than 90 days behind on his mortgage payments.

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Richmond-based Housing Opportunities Made Equal was one of the organizations that conducted investigations for the study, which took place between April 2010 and March 2011.

HOME looked into 24 companies offering their services to Virginians, said Amy Nelson, HOME’s director of systemic investigations and enforcement.

“These companies were either breaking the law outright or skirting the edge of the law in order to scam vulnerable homeowners out of their last dollars,” she said.

The companies reached homeowners in a variety of ways, such as telephone calls and advertisements on the radio and television, the report says.

After the homeowners contacted the companies, HOME found there were trends in the advice that they offered, Nelson said.

More than half of the companies advised homeowners to stop making mortgage payments or to stop contacting their lenders because it would help them get a modified loan, according to a report HOME complied from their findings.

Additionally, half of the companies required fees upfront to provide services or charged a fee after minimal work, the report says.

Nelson said the percentages are conservative, and actual percentages might be higher.

Many of the companies also guaranteed they could get a modified mortgage for the homeowners and told the clients to submit fraudulent documents to their lenders or the government.

HOME found many of the companies it investigated by following up on complaints made by homeowners about scammers.

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an organization that focuses on the prevention of loan modification scams, reported complaints that were made through its website, www.loanscamalert.org, to HOME.

On the website, there were 292 complaints from Virginia of loan modification scammers in the past year. Six of the reports came from Suffolk, of which five involved companies outside of Virginia.

Yolanda McGill, senior counsel for LCCR’s Fair Housing and Fair Lending Project, said most of the companies reported were based in Florida or California. She said she thinks many of the companies work out of these states and contact people in other places to make it harder for authorities to investigate their dealings.

“It seems like, in Virginia, (the problem) is the out-of-state scammer,” said McGill. “Suffolk reflected the problem overall.”

The Suffolk homeowners were given many of the same promises HOME detailed in its report. Some people were told the companies were with the government or government-sponsored, according to LCCR.

McGill said it is important for homeowners facing foreclosure to be wary of anyone they work with dealing with their loans.

HOME said homeowners should avoid any person or company who:

  • Requires a fee in advance for their services.
  • Promises to find mistakes in loan documents that will force the lender to forgive or modify your loan.
  • Guarantees to stop a foreclosure or to get a modified loan.
  • Advises you to stop making mortgage payments or cut off communication with a mortgage company.
  • Advises you to make mortgage payments directly to them instead of to a lender.
  • Advises you to transfer your home into their names and promises to make timely payments.

“It’s important for homeowners to identify scammers,” said Paula Sherman, education and training coordinator for HOME.

McGill said homeowners behind on mortgage payments should be sure to open all the pieces of mail from their lenders and check the credentials of anyone they work with, even attorneys.

She added that most of the time, the best help for people facing foreclosure is free or close to it.

“People are saying it’s better to pay money for this then to do it for free, and it’s just not true,” she said.